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from issue no. 12 - 2008

Reality rather than the eye

An interview with director Mario Monicelli, the father of Italian comedy: his films, his friendship with Rossellini and Alberto Sordi. His new documentary on a day in the Monti district near the Colosseum

Interview with Mario Monicelli by Giovanni Ricciardi

Mario Monicelli in his home in Via dei Serpenti, in the Monti district of Rome

Mario Monicelli in his home in Via dei Serpenti, in the Monti district of Rome

As the crow flies it’s less than five hundred meters from the house of Mario Monicelli to the Torre del Grillo, that of the Marchese, one of his most successful creations. At 93 years old, the great director from Viareggio, who has spent the last 75 in Rome, had the idea of taking up position once again behind the camera, to recount a day in the life of this city, and of one of its oldest neighborhoods in particular, perhaps the only one among those in the center that still retain a working-class and almost a village atmosphere.
“That’s also why I lived in Monti for twenty-five years, and I certainly believe I’ll never move away from here again. This neighborhood reminds me a little of my childhood in Viareggio, that even then wasn’t a small town but a resort where more tourists flocked perhaps at that time than came to the Capital of the Italian Empire”.
Monicelli shot seven hours of film, then he cut a cameo of twenty minutes, which was quickly bought by RAI Trade and “L’Espresso” Group and resold as an insert with the daily la Repubblica a few months ago with the simple and curious title: Next to the Colosseum there’s Monti. As if to say that close to the “majesty of the Colosseum” you can still discover the concrete life of the people: there are the card games in the center for the aged, the collection of comic books of the butcher in Via dei Serpenti, the gossip in the barber shop, the Easter of the Ukrainians, the shuffling steps of an elderly man, the craft workshops, the tramps and young idlers, the surprise of a child who plugs his ears when he hears the oompa oompa of the brass band on the local feast. And She’s there, too, the Madonna dei Monti, and her beautiful thirteenth century image passing through the streets of the district carried on their shoulders by the Confraternity of Monticiani, and the crowd of ordinary people following behind.
When we ask the reason for this tribute to Monti, the director dodges the question: “There is no why. I found myself particularly at home in this neighborhood. People know me and say hello. In the morning, during my daily walk, I go into friends’ shops, buy a few things, swap gossip with people that I’ve known for many years. And so I thought of saying something about this corner of Rome, which is a bit suburb and a bit village, without focusing on “big” history, the Suburra or arches freighted with the past, but on an ordinary day, which is also a bit mine”.
And you were able to tell it with “the eye of a child”...
MARIO MONICELLI: Thank you for that, I don’t know if with the eye of a child... or an old man. It’s a bit the round I make every day, as I said, there was no particular intention, rather than the eye, it’s the things that happen before one’s eyes.
Monicelli, <I>Near the Colosseum there’s Monti</I>

Monicelli, Near the Colosseum there’s Monti

So, in this case also, a bit of the lesson of Neorealism always come back...
MONICELLI: But even there, things went on without there being a true and proper project.
In what sense?
MONICELLI: When the war ended, we who’d already worked with the old directors thought that the Italian cinema was dead, that American films would bury us. The old way of making films, all based on studio sets, had no chance of surviving. Then Rossellini got the idea of going around Rome, taking actors from the streets and mixing them with professionals, and out came the miracle that is Rome, Open City. And we all followed that idea, not least because we didn’t have the means to do otherwise, and for that matter we were still the only ones in the world who had learned to film outside, with natural light.
Did you know Rossellini at that time?
MONICELLI: Of course, I knew everyone a little, although I was still young. It wasn’t difficult. At that time the world of cinema in Rome was a group of a hundred or so people, including actors, directors, assistants, scriptwriters, costume designers, editors. We all met in the same bars, where we went to spend the afternoon because homes had no heating and it was freezing cold. I was already on the inside from the year of my arrival in Rome in 1934, when I started working as assistant director. But with Germi, Rosi, Rossellini, De Sica, and with the actors, we were all friends. I knew some of them even from before the war. There was no rivalry, first because there was no money, later because, when this “new” Italian cinema became an international phenomenon, they offered us so much work that we had no problems with competitiveness.
So Neorealism was a phenomenon dictated also by necessity...
MONICELLI: It was a miracle, as I said, caused by lack of economic means, but it was a great success immediately, not least because, for the first time, there was no need to invent anything. The stories told of the events of everyday life, shot almost directly, and the plots were simple, not those intrigues of love and betrayal that came from novels or American screenplays. They were already there, in life, those stories, they were taken from the truth of life, and the events of a very recent past, that everyone was aware of. Even my films, that had the tone of comedy, and were intended for the tastes of a wide audience, were born in that atmosphere of Neorealism. One of my first films, Totò cerca casa[Totò house hunting], of 1949, took its cue from a current and highly dramatic issue, as those of the Neorealist cinema were, although I developed it in an ironic way.
Then your films also took their subject matter from the past, not only the current situation. And you also have a degree in History...
MONICELLI: In a sense, yes. In Milan, I studied History and Philosophy. Then I abandoned my studies half way through to work in film, but during the war they put on a special session for soldiers. It was enough to turn up in uniform, say four stupid things, and they gave you a degree. And so I took advantage of it.
But your passion for history has remained, one only has to think of such masterpieces as For love and gold...
MONICELLI: Well, a lot of imagination had to go into that because we wanted to make a film on the daily lives of ordinary people in the Middle Ages, and there was almost nothing on it in terms of historical evidence. So we tried to think up a plausible story, always mediated through the filter of irony, and out came this idea of a rather MONICELLI: For the Marquis, I did a lot of research, and there too I realized immediately that there was no need to invent much: the plot and the episodes were all there already in the historical reports on a figure who represented an era. And then I became curious about this papal Rome, represented by a “curial” aristocracy – made up of some rather rickety families, but all of which had given at least one pope to Rome – and the populace, without there being a middle class worthy of the name. A Rome in which everyone from the great nobles to the poorest were papist and in which very few had any idea that in France there had been a decisive revolution and new ideas were making ground. A Rome, after all, not much different from the one I encountered in 1934, which had nothing to do even with the Milan of that time.
What do you remember of those years?
MONICELLI: I remember a city of five hundred thousand people who all went on foot because there was very little transport: there were only a few trams, and the few rare cars went wherever they liked, without traffic lights, without even the lanes marked on the roads. A city that after sunset plummeted into the dark, in which groups of lads like me went about making noise. We went from one square to another chatting, smoking, kicking a ball about that sometimes the police would confiscate, because it was forbidden to play in the streets. A city in which the rhetoric of the regime was altogether external, because there was an infinite gap between Mussolini’s dreams of glory and the backwardness of a country that was 70% illiterate.
Then came the war...
MONICELLI: When I was called up at the beginning of 1943 they moved us to Naples, waiting to be shipped to Libya, but all the ships got sunk, the situation had already collapsed, and we stayed there, stuck, waiting for embarkation that fortunately never arrived. Until we were caught up by 8 September.
And what did you do after the armistice?
MONICELLI: I took off my uniform, I got some civilian clothes and came back to Rome on foot, to join part of my family, given that my brothers were either prisoners of war or missing.
And how did you live in Rome during the months of Nazi occupation?
MONICELLI: I was put in touch with the underground Socialist Party. Every now and then I received a phone call asking me to go to a certain address where in general they gave me leaflets to be delivered to another address. So, in reality, one did nothing, and I didn’t even know who was in charge of me. But in Rome that’s how it was, the resistance was a political business rather than anything else.
The church of Santa Maria ai Monti, at the end of Via dei Serpenti

The church of Santa Maria ai Monti, at the end of Via dei Serpenti

Your secular and left-wing militancy, from after the war to date, did not prevent you from being a great friend of a Christian such as Alberto Sordi...
MONICELLI: That’s true. However, rather than Christian, Sordi was a convinced Catholic, a “Vatican” Catholic one might say.... He didn’t talk about it often, and in any case our political or religious differences were never an obstacle to a long and lasting friendship. Of course, he was considered “stingy”, at least from a certain point of view... Whereas he donated a great deal of money to charities for helping children or the sick. Perhaps it was also to gain favor with someone, I don’t know. But I know that in his life he gave away millions.
Is there one film to which you have remained particularly attached?
MONICELLI: Yes, but it’s not a film I made. What struck me most of all – and I showed it many times to my colleagues when I worked on films of my own – is Rossellini’s The Flowers of Saint Francis. A simple, basic film, and even something of a jumble, if you like, as Rossellini’s things were sometimes. But he always knew how to make them well, those things, mixing actors from the street and great professionals, such as Fabrizi. And there he simply told the story of the poor who followed Francis, the lesson of God, prayer, and meeting other poor people. Nothing else. Yet in that film there is a tenderness and a humility that have always struck me.
Can we say that there is a little of that tenderness in the way you film, for example, in your recent documentary, the procession of Our Lady?
MONICELLI: That I don’t know, and nor do I know whether the Rome I film in those twenty minutes, still kind and full of humanity, is really the Rome of today. But, you see, before you spoke of the eye. No, it’s not a question of the eye: the procession is a procession. You just need to know the route, get in the right place, maybe above, on a balcony, and wait for it to arrive.

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